DESMA Course #1 // Design + Management

Last week was our first official course for the DESMA program. The title of the course was Perspectives on Design + Management (emphasis on the “+” to distinguish it from “Design Management”). Our instructors were Anna Rylander from Business & Design Lab at University of Gothenburg (and my supervisor) and Stefan Meisiek from the Copenhagen Business School. As this was only our second time meeting as an entire group, the first order of business was reintroducing each other. Following the introductions Anna and Stefan explained that they wanted to shake up the structure of the class, and start from contemporary perspectives on design and management and work backwards, addressing the background of the field of Design Management at the end of the week.

Thus, on the first day we had a presentation from Anna on the history and relevance of Pragmatism as a theoretical grounding for design and management research. While Anna went into details regarding the different contributors to the development of Pragmatism, my major takeaway from her presentation was the practical underpinnings that make Pragmatism a particularly useful way to look at design and management. As suggested by the “+” in the title of the course, Design and Management are two different perspectives and practices that have different histories and traditions of research. Although a field called Design Management has been established, it is still useful to look at the relationship between Design and Management and try to understand what it really means to combine them into something new — what they can learn from each other, and what aspects of the two fields don’t quite gel. It seems to me that Pragmatism can be a useful way to draw connections between Design and Management practices. Through Pragmatism, we can look at and gain understanding of the relationships among the physical settings, the activities, the expertise, and the experiences of people practicing in both Design and Management.

On Tuesday we had presentations from two professional design practitioners in two very different settings. First was Malin Orebäck of Veryday (my practice advisor) and second was Stina Nilimaa Wickström of Volvo Product Design. It was really interesting to see the differences in practices between a relatively small design consultancy and a large corporation. However, to some extent, both situations dealt with issues of organizational learning, albeit in very different ways.

A growing part of Veryday’s offering is their design led business innovation strategy. Many of these projects demand a great amount of user research, which can generate a large amount of visual information. While Veryday could go out, collect data, and return to their offices to analyze it, they learned that it is often more fruitful to bring a project room to their client’s offices. In the project room the team conducts interviews, posts pictures and snippets of text; they interpret the information and arrange it using a variety of methods; and, of course, they produce the sketches, maps, and diagrams that plaster the walls of design offices — all in an environment where the client can simply “pop-in”. Such a set-up challenges not only the designers to be able to discuss and explain their work on the fly, it also enables the clients to participate in the rough stages of the process that they do not historically have access to. Either way, both the design team and their clients must learn a little bit as they must interact outside their comfort zone.

At Volvo Product Design, another type of organizational learning takes place. In Stina’s description of her work she emphasized the size and structure of the Volvo corporation. In her case, she has a department that has been an integral part of the product of vehicles for a long time. However, a changing attitude toward design practice and the understanding of what design can offer a company (creativity, innovations, adaptation, customer empathy*) do not always align with the attitude and structure of a large corporation like Volvo. Therefore Stina and her team engage a different type of organizational learning that is internal and at a very large scale. Indeed, designers inside Volvo may be viewed very differently than designers at Veryday, even though their everyday design practices share many traits in common. We spent the afternoon following the two presentations trying to write research questions that would be interesting and useful to professional practitioners.

Wednesday focused on a different approach to writing research questions. Rather than constructing questions based on professional practice, we discussed how to develop questions from theory. It was a challenging day for many of us who are still trying to wrap our heads around different philosophies of knowledge. Stefan presented three different epistemologies for us to consider: neo-positivism, symbolism, and post-modernism. Each epistemology carries with it important implications for how we choose / construct methods, analyze results, and interpret our findings. Our discussion revolved around a selection of readings from three topics: design thinking, materiality, and sense-making. Although we didn’t quite achieve the goal of constructing our own questions based on theories, I think many of us came a step closer to understanding them through some good discussions. One such discussion revolved around the readings on materiality. There were three readings on materiality and different types of “objects”. The articles themselves seemed clear as I read them, but as soon as I tried to explain my understanding to someone else it got complicated extremely quickly. However, when we came together as a large group with the guidance of Stefan and Anna we were able to see how each of the articles took a theory and built off of it. It was a good lesson, and I look forward to attempting to identify threads of theories and epistemological stances in future readings. Although, I will also say that many of us were also a little wary of getting too sucked into a world of theory. There seems to be a strong desire to keep things connected to everyday practice — a hope that we can make our work understandable and useable by people outside of academia.

Thursday was a chance for us hear a little bit about the history of the field of Design Management. Our first lecture, from Lisbeth Lisbeth Svengren Holm of the University of Borås gave an overview of design and management from the start of the Industrial Revolution to today. For me, a main takeaway from Lisbeth’s lecture was the split between design and management that occurred with the mechanization of production. Throughout most of the 20th century the two practices moved further and further apart, with only occasional instances where the two aligned, often through designers gaining a central role in organizational decision-making (e.g. Braun and Apple). These examples highlight the potential for design to be a fundamental aspect of organizations rather than a styling exercise sandwiched between specifications and production. In the afternoon we heard from Ulla Johansson and Jill Woodilla on the concept of Design Thinking. Ulla and Jill presented the progression of mentions of “design thinking” in academic and popular literature for the past two decades. It was impressive to see the spike in references to “design thinking” that occurred in the 2000s. One of my favorite insights of their findings was in the distinction between design thinking mentioned in design literature compared to design thinking mentioned in management literature. I see their work as an important step in clarifying what we mean by terms and concepts found in design and management.

On our last day of the course, we had the opportunity to sit in on a “final seminar” for Marcus Jahnke, a doctoral student at HDK. Stefan served as an “opponent”, although he was more conversational than antagonistic, and the two sat in front of an audience of close to fifty. It was interesting and valuable to hear Marcus talk about his work. Particularly, I began imagining myself in his situation. The content of the week started to come together, and although I won’t be volunteering to give any lectures on epistemology any time soon, I felt like I could see how he had deliberately chosen theories to support his perspective and work. It was also a good chance to reflect on my perspective, and how I hope to justify it in the future. Overall, I still have some things to sort out as far as epistemology is concerned, but I feel like I have taken a baby step in understanding theories and how they will impact my research efforts. To wrap up the week we had a discussion about what we learned and how we hoped to move forward the essays we will write for the course. A common theme amongst the group was to connect what we learned back to our own work. I think this reflects the desire for many of us to stay rooted in professional practice. On my way home I took some time to reflect on the course, and I think I will have plenty of interesting points to discuss in the essay.

In addition to the content of the course, the week was also an opportunity for us to grow together as a group. We shared challenges and perspectives from our various disciplines, and while I always wish there was more time to have one-on-one discussions with everyone, I felt like we all received a lot of good feedback on our work so far. We also had a chance to discuss the DESMA platform, which we are still developing. The primary decision coming out of the week was that whatever platform we use, we need to be active sharing knowledge and information. For now, we will focus on Facebook as the primary mode of communication as we continue to develop a prototype to support external communication. On that note, I will say that I look forward to seeing everyone again in March, and hope to have plenty of work to present for critique and feedback.

***For me these are still question marks because I’m still working on describing this clearly and effectively. How can state this in a way that doesn’t sound fluffy?!)